In Balkans, cheated flat buyers live grueling tragedy | News | DW | 29.06.2017
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In Balkans, cheated flat buyers live grueling tragedy

For thousands of Macedonians and Serbians, buying an apartment has proven to be a tragedy. More than a decade since being defrauded, cheated flat buyers live with one foot in their homes and the other out on the street.

With tears welling up in his eyes, retired electrical engineer Kiril Atanasovski jabs his finger up in the air to point out a half-built block of flats in the Macedonian capital Skopje.

"Look, look up at the top floor, there! That's the apartment I bought for my daughter 14 years ago, the apartment she has never entered."

It is called Antigone, after the famous Greek tragedy by Sophocles.

The 77-year-old is now living out his own tragedy. He sold everything he had in order, he thought, to provide a roof over his daughter's head.  In 2003, he paid 28,000 euros (about $30,000) to a construction company for a two-bedroom apartment. The contract stated that his daughter could move in 24 months later.

He had no idea he was buying a flat in a building which would become the center of the largest residential real estate scam in the country. Atanasovski ended up without any money – and also without the apartment.

The owner of Fikom, the company that built Antigone, and his wife were later convicted of fraud and tax evasion for having cheated hundreds of people by selling the same apartments several times. As the two sit in jail, meanwhile, the block stands empty.

People like Atanasovski are not alone.

Antigone apartments in Skopje. (DW/Aleksandar Manasiev)

The Antigone apartments in Skopje are an eyesore that continue to haunt those who were conned.

Risky business

Buying a new flat in Macedonia and its northern neighbour Serbia has turned out to be a risky business in the quarter century since Yugoslavia broke up and sent both countries down a path of enormous political, economic and legal turmoil.

Read: The Balkans: From Yugoslav Wars to ever-tense peace

In the absence of official statistics, estimates gathered from informal associations of deceived buyers put the number of such cases of fraud at over 6,000 in both countries, with their victims fleeced out of more than 180 million euros ($205 million).

Some of the fraudsters fled to South America or elsewhere before they could be arrested. Others were caught and convicted. But in every case, lawyers say, the money has been spirited away with no chance of recovery, and the defrauded people have been left without cash and their apartments.

The victims, many of whom poured their life savings into what they hoped would be a safe property investment, cannot grasp how it can be that they have been left high and dry.

'I have bought a problem'

Just like Atanasovski, Nenad Pejin from Serbia's second biggest city, Novi Sad, has spent more than a decade seeking justice.

Pejin has studied his case so thoroughly one might mistake him for a professional lawyer. He is ready to fight with fascinating persistence for the 18,000 euros he paid in 2003 for a flat he never saw.

Pejin had sold his large apartment with a plan to buy two smaller properties - one for him and his wife and the other for his son.

To his horror, he later learned that the 28-square-meter (300 square feet) apartment had already been sold more than once.

"My life turned around overnight. Instead of an apartment, I have bought a problem. My struggle has been going on for 13 years. I don't plan to give up even though I had a stroke last year which, thank God, I survived," Pejin said.

He is the president of the self-styled Association of Deceived Buyers in Novi Sad, which currently has 90 members. They estimate there have been around 3,000 such scams in this city alone, representing more than half of the around 5,000 cases they suspect across all of Serbia.

Nenad Pejin

Nenad Pejin has devouted a good chunk of his life to getting his money back.

Lured by cheap prices

Most property frauds in Serbia and Macedonia developed shortly after the turn of the century, before there was an electronic property registry database or any specific legislation that would prevent the multiple sale of properties.

Buyers were lured by cheap prices that seemed too good to be true - and actually were, said Nenad Djordjevic, from Klaster Real Estate of Serbia, an association which lobbies for a more transparent property market.

"The bait was a discounted price per square meter. That's why buyers said 'yes' and handed over the money without ever having seen the property. Investors offered apartments at a 20-30 percent discount so the buyers fell for it to save money," he said.

Read: Trade in academic work thrives in Macedonia and Bosnia 

A few years ago Lorija Vanevska from Skopje was a lawyer representing victims in the Fikom scandal, including herself. She had bought one of the around 100 apartments that had been sold more than once in the 150-unit Antigone building.

"Тhe owner of the company, Nikola Nikolic, was only a puppet hiding fraudsters on a much higher level," she said, accusing some banks of complicity in the scam.

Nikolic and his wife were arrested in 2006 and sentenced to 15 years in jail for multiple counts of fraud and tax evasion. The pair never said where the money ended up. Two years ago, Nikolic was found dead in his cell in what was officially recorded as a suicide. Afterwards many flat buyers lost hope that the truth would ever come to light.

"Тhe situation would have been completely different if Nikolic had spoken in court and revealed who else was involved in this huge affair," said Vanevska, who points the finger of guilt at the courts.

Wohnblock in Novi Sad, Serbien (DW/Aleksandar Manasiev)

The building in Novi Sad where Pejin thought he had bought an apartment.

Corrupted judiciary?

Pejin from Novi Sad shares a mistrust of the judicial system. He said he took on most of the work that the state should have done, such as collecting evidence and warning others. He is frustrated at and suspicious of the endless trials.

"Millions of euros from the scam must have ended up somewhere, maybe even in the hands of people from the law who were asked to delay the trials," he said.

Read: Balkan states in grips of corruption

Some of the victims are giving up as the cost of the trials become too much to bear - not just in money but in nerves.

Miodrag Djukanovic, a notary from Serbia, explained that victims were mostly from poorer families sucked in by the steeply discounted price. He suspects all these scams were not just random cases but a well-planned fraudulent scheme.

"These fraudsters do not usually have any property in their own name, so there is no chance to seize anything if they are found guilty. They know that they are committing fraud and they are preparing the ground for it. Unfortunately, citizens can win in courts but the chances any of them will get their money back are very small."

Back in Skopje, Atanasovski looks at the date - 21 January 2003 - when he paid for the apartment and reacts as if it is the first time he has become aware of all that lost time.  Today, 14 years later, his daughter is still renting an apartment.

"We age along with the building. Some of the buyers have died waiting for the courts to decide, others are seriously ill, few still believe that they will get the flats they've paid for," he said.

He then walks away from Antigone, but he cannot walk away from the financial tragedy that continues to plague him.

By Aleksandar Manasiev in Skopje, Macedonia and Marijana Krkic in Novi Sad, Serbia.

The investigation was supported by The Robert Bosch Stiftung and the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

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